Taking a Closer Look at River Health

Pittsburgh Tribune Review
20 February 2011
By Bob Frye

As late as the 1960s, fish kill was almost a monthly occurrence on two of Pittsburgh's three rivers.

The Monongahela was the exception ... sort of. It wasn't any cleaner than the Allegheny or Ohio — it was so polluted that it essentially had no fish left to kill.

"We don't have the records of fish kills on the Mon like we do the other rivers, but only because fish populations were so low that, when a kill occurred, it was so small as to be virtually undetectable," said Bob Ventorini, the biologist in charge of the rivers for the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission.

All three rivers have come a long way. The issue now is how to document and build on those gains.

That's where the commission's Three Rivers Management Plan comes in. Unveiled publicly in conjunction with the sport show Saturday in Monroeville, it's a road map that lays out strategies for monitoring fish health and populations, assessing stocking programs and developing habitat management activities.

The plan — available at http://fishandboat.com/threeriversplan.htm — is a draft open to public comment until April 30, said Dave Miko, chief of the fish management division.

The plan breaks down ongoing and planned activities into three priority levels. One of the potentially most useful, a comprehensive "recreational use" survey, is only priority three — to occur within five years — because of money.

"You get so much information on what people are fishing for, catch rates, what they're harvesting, what they're spending, the economic impact of all that activity — it's a tremendous amount of information," said Leroy Young, head of the commission's fisheries bureau.

The problem: Such studies are expensive. One done on the Susquehanna River in 2008 cost around $200,000, Young said.

"We have not been able to commit the budget resources" to do a similar study on the three rivers, said Rick Lorson, the commission's area 8 biologist in Somerset. In the meantime, the rivers still face threats.

Emerging contaminants that cause some male smallmouth bass to produce eggs, abandoned mine drainage, Marcellus gas drilling and invasive species such as Asian carp all could negatively affect the rivers, Ventorini said.

Meanwhile, severe budget cuts at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will affect those who use the river, likely starting this year.

Last week, officials in the Pittsburgh district announced they are getting just $4 million for maintenance and operation of the locks on the Allegheny River in fiscal year 2012, which starts in October. That's a reduction of more than 50 percent compared to this year.

To deal with that, the Corps has two plans: Operate locks 2, 3 and 4 — from Sharpsburg to Natrona — on a 24/7 basis and close locks 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9 — from Freeport to Templeton — to all recreational boating traffic, or give most of its attention to the three locks closest to Pittsburgh and run the others as it can, perhaps one shift per day.

Either option — one of which will start this summer — would greatly reduce fishing and boating access on the Allegheny, said Curt Meeder, chief of planning in the Corps' Pittsburgh office.

"That's greatly subject to risk right now," he said.

That's why the recreational use survey is critical, Ventorini said. Conservative estimates put the impact of fishing and boating on the rivers at $4 million annually, he said. A study could confirm that or show the figure should be larger.

"That's very important," Ventorini said, "especially when talking to politicians."

Bob Frye can be reached at bfrye@tribweb.com or 724-838-5148.